One of our greatest periods of forgotten prosperity.
Click for AUDIO version.
Following World War II, America experienced great prosperity from 1945-1960 which I refer to as “The Golden Era of the 20th Century.” Yet, for some unknown reason, it is commonly overlooked in history books. As the builder of the Atomic bomb, which ended the war, America found itself in the unfamiliar role as leader of the free world. From this, we developed a national pride and swagger as to our abilities. Some thought we would slip back into an economic Depression. We didn’t. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, many returning soldiers went back to school and graduated with college degrees and ambition. Not surprising, Academia flourished during this time. People went to school who normally couldn’t afford to, and college enrollments swelled.
Since, we were no longer forced to ration goods, as we did during the war, we developed a huge consumer appetite which propelled industry. Unlike the destruction of post-war Europe and Asia, America was able to quickly build a manufacturing juggernaut which commanded world markets. Possessing an attitude of “The Sky is the limit,” American business created a new generation of technology consisting of such things as computers, aircraft, jet engines, ships, automobiles, televisions, and more. Returning G.I.s began a migration to the suburbs, representing boom times for the construction industry. We created the Interstate Highway System which meant we could move more freely across the country, working wonders for tourism and our national parks. There was also a significant transition from trains to planes, and passenger jets entered service. NASA was also organized in preparation for the Space Race with the Russians. Telephones also changed, from limited use to just about everyone having one in their home. Computers were being introduced during the 1950’s for business use, representing a new way to quickly perform calculations for construction, manufacturing, and government use.
Hospitals and medical research also grew during this period, thanks in large part to the “Baby Boom,” and a populace spreading throughout the country.
It was during this period the Theory Y form of management came into existence in the workplace. Unlike Theory X, representing top-down autocratic rule (e.g., micromanagement), Theory Y represented worker empowerment, where employees were delegated responsibility and allowed to conquer projects on their own. In other words, it was a bottom-up approach encouraging people to embrace their work and assume ownership. Time was considered immaterial; getting the job done was of paramount importance and they did whatever was necessary to do so.
America forged relationships with countries all over the world, who were in the process of rebuilding their industry. Our GDP jumped from $200M in 1940, to $300M in 1950, and $500M in 1960, more than doubling prewar figures. This meant there were many jobs, better wages, and a higher standard of living. It was certainly an exciting era as we experienced many new freedoms, particularly in the areas of transportation and communications. Not surprising, a burgeoning middle class grew and prospered.
Culturally, music changed from Swing and Jazz to Rock ‘n’ Roll. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were slowly being phased out to make way for the likes of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and The Comets, Buddy Holly, and many more. Thanks to the advent of television, movie attendance began to drop off, as did radio listeners. People found it less expensive to stay home and be entertained by the likes of Uncle Miltie, Jackie Gleason, and Sid Caesar. Desperate for audiences, the movie studios turned to CinemaScope which offered a big-screen panoramic picture which couldn’t fit on television. They also tried 3D photography, but this was the era of the blockbuster, featuring movies such as “The Robe,” “The Ten Commandments,” and “Ben-Hur.” A new breed of actor was entering the industry, such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe. In sports, baseball was still king and New York City was the place to be with the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants.
In 1959, Alaska and Hawaii became our 49th and 50th states respectively. Presiding over the country was Harry S. Truman, from 1945-1953, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, from 1953-1961. Probably because of his kinship to the G.I.s, Ike became the symbol for this period of prosperity. He launched the Interstate Highway System, and NASA which paved the way for the future. Perhaps our biggest concern throughout this period was the threat of communism and the Cold War. Aside from Korea, we lived in a general peaceful period of time.
So, why is this period so important and what does it tell us about today? Three things come to mind. First, there was a spirit of unity in the country back then. There was less division and more of a spirit of cooperation, which is particularly understood by soldiers. Having survived the Great Depression and becoming the leaders of the free world also gave us a sense of confidence in ourselves, thereby creating a “can do” mentality which stimulated ambition. Their unbridled enthusiasm created a “go-go” attitude which pushed the country to success.
Second, the government helped pave the way for business and industry, but really didn’t interfere, at least when you compare it to the government bureaucracy of today.
Third, we have far more luxuries today than our predecessors, and we tend to take things for granted. Whereas our forefathers understood the need to earn something, today there is more of a sense of entitlement. Perhaps we need another Great Depression or World War to teach us these values again.
The period of 1945-1960 is one of the greatest eras of prosperity in U.S. history. This was when the “movers and shakers” of our country changed the world. It is the Greatest Generation’s legacy. You have to take your hat off to them.
Keep the Faith!